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North Korea's untried leader

By Bruce Klingner The weekend death of Kim Jong Il raises concerns about its impact on Pyongyang's ongoing leadership transition, regime stability, and North Korean security and foreign policies.

By Bruce Klingner

The weekend death of Kim Jong Il raises concerns about its impact on Pyongyang's ongoing leadership transition, regime stability, and North Korean security and foreign policies.

Provocative North Korean behavior or military action is unlikely in the near term. But Seoul and Washington will be wary that Kim Jong Un, third son of Kim Jong Il and the next leader of North Korea, may feel it necessary in the future to precipitate a crisis to prove his mettle to other senior leaders or deflect attention from the regime's failings.

Kim's death eclipses rumors that North Korea and the United States had made sufficient diplomatic progress to potentially enable a resumption of nuclear negotiations through the six-party talks. It is likely that such negotiations would be postponed as North Korea goes through a mourning period, formalized succession process, and possible retrenchment of its foreign policies.

The Succession. Following Kim Jong Il's 2008 stroke, Pyongyang implemented a leadership succession plan to anoint Jong Un the next leader. He was made a four-star general, despite having never served in the military, and given senior party and military leadership positions. The succession seems to be well under way, but during the past year, several senior officials were removed from office, reportedly as a purge of those resistant to a second dynastic succession.

Had Kim lived longer, it would have given Jong Un greater opportunity to develop his own independent power base of elites loyal to him personally. The North Korean elite has a vested interest in maintaining the system, and they will balance a shared sense of external threat against fear of domestic instability from an inexperienced leader. Resistance could manifest itself in outright opposition or in usurping Jong Un's power and leaving him a figurehead.

Untested Leader. Kim Jong Un, 28, has little experience or accomplishments, and has not had the decades of grooming and securing of a power base that Jong Il enjoyed before assuming control from his own father, Kim Il Sung. During the last years of his father's life, Jong Il was, for all intents and purposes, running the country.

Some experts assess that, since Kim Jong Un spent several years in Switzerland, he may be more amenable to implementing economic and political reform as well as pursuing a less provocative foreign policy. However, because Jong Un lacks his father's cult of personality, he will rely more on support from senior party and military leaders who are overwhelmingly nationalist and resistant to change. The new leader will have to reassure the senior leadership that his policies do not pose a risk to regime stability and, by extension, their livelihoods and lives.

Indeed, Jong Un may pursue a policy even more hard-line than his father's. In addition to potentially instigating a crisis in order to generate a "rally around the flag" effect, there could be announcements to heighten the country's defenses and increase rather than abandon Pyongyang's nuclear weapons arsenal. Such a tumultuous time, the government would argue, would negate any potential for economic or political reform that could risk regime instability.

Breakthrough on Hold? Before Kim's death, media reports suggested that the United States and North Korea had made preliminary agreements that opened the door to resumption of multilateral nuclear negotiations. Pyongyang had reportedly acquiesced to U.S. and South Korean preconditions by agreeing to freeze its uranium enrichment program, allow a return of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, and place a moratorium on further nuclear and long-range missile tests. In return, it was rumored, the United States would pledge to provide 240,000 tons of food aid.

If the rumors are true, it reflects a tactical diplomatic breakthrough, though one that simply returns the weary boxers back to the ring for what figures to be difficult and contentious negotiations. Given Pyongyang's cheating on previous accords, Washington and its allies would need to insist on more carefully crafted agreements than previously vaguely written joint statements. Difficulties in monitoring easily hidden uranium facilities would necessitate far more vigorous and intrusive verification measures than were being contemplated when the six-party talks collapsed in 2008.

But Kim Jong Il's death would presumably delay a resumption of such negotiations as the new North Korean leadership assesses to what degree it is willing to open up to the outside world. Although the demise of Kim Jong Il provides an opportunity for change on the Korean peninsula, it is a transition fraught with uncertainty, nervousness, and potential danger.